Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producer: Nick Greenaway
We're always hearing about the desperate plight of Africa's wildlife, especially the elephants and rhinos that are so cruelly hunted down for their tusks and horns.
All most of us do is sound concerned and maybe hand over a few coins to a wildlife charity. But recently Liam Bartlett met an Aussie guy who's actually out there making a difference.
Damien Mander has been called a conservation Rambo, a former commando who's using his expertise to save Zimbabwe's big animals.
Now it's the poachers who are finding out what it feels like to be hunted.
For more information on Damien Mander and his International Anti Poaching Foundation go to:
LIAM BARTLETT: Being this close to a Black Rhino is a little unsettling and, yet, an incredible thrill because an encounter like this is increasingly rare. Tragically, these remarkable creatures have been hunted to the brink of extinction for their iconic horns.
LIAM BARTLETT: And the poachers would take both horns, would they?
DAMIEN MANDER: Yeah.
LIAM BARTLETT: The front and the back?
DAMIEN MANDER: They'll just hack the whole front of the face off.
LIAM BARTLETT: Here, in Zimbabwe, we've joined the front line of a war - a dangerous cat-and-mouse conflict between the rhino poachers and a dedicated team intent on stopping the slaughter. And, in the midst of this battle, you'll find a true eco-warrior, Australian commando Damien Mander.
LIAM BARTLETT: Can you really make a difference?
DAMIEN MANDER: Mate, we are making a difference and it's fantastic.
LIAM BARTLETT: But, how do you know that?
DAMIEN MANDER: 'Cause we've seen the results on the ground. We're getting arrests and we're preserving wildlife.
LIAM BARTLETT: Damien has brought years of military expertise to his new mission, creating hardcore anti-poaching units - highly skilled rangers trained in self-defence, tactical response, and weapons. If it looks intimidating, it's meant to. Damien is facing an enemy of armed and desperate men, prepared to kill for profit, and that includes anyone who stands in their way.
LIAM BARTLETT: Are the poachers you're coming across well-armed?
DAMIEN MANDER: Yeah, they are. Guys have been caught here the other week with AK-47s.
LIAM BARTLETT: Really?
DAMIEN MANDER: Yeah.
LIAM BARTLETT: Well, these guys are going out - your blokes - are going out with semiautomatic shotguns. Are they enough?
DAMIEN MANDER: Yeah, we'll see, hey? We'll see.
CHARLENE HEWAT: When I first met him I thought, "Oh, yeah, this is an Australian!", you know. I thought, "Yeah, here comes a Rambo, an African Rambo, "an Aussie Rambo in Africa," and I think we can really - well, I think we need somebody like that, somebody who's prepared to get out there.
LIAM BARTLETT: And get their hands dirty?
CHARLENE HEWAT: Get their hands dirty and get involved.
LIAM BARTLETT: Charlene Hewat has been fighting for the rhino and all Africa's wildlife for decades, but times have never been so desperate, and that means desperate measures. Today, we're hunting down the rhinos to get to their horns before the poachers can. A big male has been hit with a tranquilliser dart, and we've got to reach him quickly to make sure he doesn't do damage to himself, or us!
LIAM BARTLETT: This is the cause of the problem and, perversely, to keep this magnificent animal alive, it's got to come off because the poachers are desperate to get their hands on this to sell it into the Asian black market. A horn of this size is worth more than $100,000, and that is the only reason there is only 2,500 of these black rhinos left in the world today. It's come to this to try and save it. Like a giant fingernail, the horn consists of keratin, and the rhino feels no pain. Poachers take no such care, killing every rhino they find. The horn will slowly grow back but, right now, this is one rhino that's worthless to them.
LIAM BARTLETT: But that's a fair bit of weight in it that.
DAMIEN MANDER: Yeah, about 4kg, mate, so, yeah. About $100,000.
LIAM BARTLETT: You can understand, with that sort of money, the motivation is enormous, isn't it?
DAMIEN MANDER: Mate, it is. I mean, it's like sitting on a bloody Reserve Bank here with not enough guards. Yeah, so it's quite stressful, mate. This is a prize, mate. This is what they're after. This is what causes me sleepless nights.
LIAM BARTLETT: The illegal trafficking of wildlife is now the third-biggest criminal industry in the world. And although its value as a medicine and aphrodisiac has been proven false, demand for rhino horn is so insatiable, so deadly, even the calves must lose their horns.
LIAM BARTLETT: The size of that horn...
DAMIEN MANDER: Yeah.
LIAM BARTLETT: ..as tiny as it is...
DAMIEN MANDER: Yeah.
LIAM BARTLETT: ..on this 15-month-old still has to come off?
DAMIEN MANDER: Yeah, mate. The stuff's worth more than gold, so they've got no hesitation killing an animal this young and this small just to cut that small stub off the front there. That's the mentality of dealing with them on a day-to-day basis.
LIAM BARTLETT: Just like the other four rhinos dehorned today, this calf is quickly back on its feet. But, for Damien and his team, these small victories are bitter-sweet. To protect these rhinos, they must disfigure the very feature that defines them.
CHARLENE HEWAT: It's just so unnatural. I mean, we have to it comes to this to save our wildlife. Well, it's better this than them lying in a pool of blood, eh?
DAMIEN MANDER: I'm not upset. I'm angry. Filthy.
LIAM BARTLETT: Trouble is it's desperate measures to try to save a desperate situation.
CHARLENE HEWAT: Yeah, and that's what it's come to now, unfortunately, and, yeah, we're prepared to do it I think, yeah. There's a group of us that have come together and we're going to take action, aren't we?
LIAM BARTLETT: Damien Mander has become a shining star of the cause, but diamonds don't come much rougher or tougher. A Sydney publican's son with a taste for danger, he first trained as a navy clearance diver, then a commando, before spending three years in Iraq, where he ended as an advisor to the Iraqi police. At the start of 2009, he was ready for a fresh challenge and Africa beckoned.
LIAM BARTLETT: Particularly Africa or just...?
DAMIEN MANDER: Ah, yeah. Africa, you know. I probably read too much Wilbur Smith as a kid and, to be fair, I came over for the adventure. You know, I thought, (bleep) awesome! You know, I'll come over and throw my hat in the ring. I've got all this experience now from, you know, Australian military and in Iraq, and I can really make a difference.
LIAM BARTLETT: This was no hollow whim. Damien sold just about everything he owned and invested $250,000 to create the International Anti Poaching Foundation. His plans for an anti-poaching army might sound ambitious, but nowhere is it more needed than strife-torn Zimbabwe.
CHARLENE HEWAT: Our wildlife is being poached at a phenomenal rate and really what we need to do is set up anti-poaching units, and I think Damien has got the expertise.
LIAM BARTLETT: So it really is the here and now, it's that critical?
CHARLENE HEWAT: We have to do something now because tomorrow is going to be too late.
LIAM BARTLETT: When you told your family and mates you were selling up everything and moving to Africa, did they think you'd had too much sun?
DAMIEN MANDER: Ah, mum was happy to see me out of Iraq, to be honest, yeah. She was pushing me to go.
LIAM BARTLETT: Anything but Iraq?
DAMIEN MANDER: Yeah.
LIAM BARTLETT: It may not be Iraq, but manning Zimbabwe's thin, green line can be just as deadly. It's legal to shoot poachers on sight, so the stakes are high as we set out to track them.
DAMIEN MANDER: : Dying's not on my list of things to do today, but if you ask if I'm willing to die for the struggle, then the answer's 'yes'.
LIAM BARTLETT: We move quietly, looking for signs of poachers. Head tracker Elliot soon discovers one of the main tools of the trade - a wire snare.
DAMIEN MANDER: It opens up and just becomes a big noose, sort of thing. It's like a land mine. Unless you disarm it, it stays there.
LIAM BARTLETT: What's it meant catch?
DAMIEN MANDER: Mate, it's indiscriminate, so it can catch anything. It can catch a wild dog this big or get caught around the leg of an elephant, so it's completely indiscriminate.
LIAM BARTLETT: Soon we come face-to-face with the carnage snares can cause - a beautiful male impala, not long dead.
DAMIEN MANDER: Shit. Pisses me off, eh.
LIAM BARTLETT: The trap is part of a snare line, set within the last day or so. Are are you going to set that off?
DAMIEN MANDER: No, we're just going to - we're going to disarm it and we're going to ambush this site later.
LIAM BARTLETT: Try and wait for the poachers to come back?
DAMIEN MANDER: Yeah.
LIAM BARTLETT: So, now, the hunters become the hunted. An hour before sunset, Damien's team head back into the site to lay an ambush. Surprise and patience are critical. The rangers must watch and wait. The hunch is the poachers will come back, either at sunset or sunrise.
LIAM BARTLETT: We've been in this ambush position since about an hour before sunrise. Damien has three of his rangers all armed and waiting. He's betting on the fact the poachers will come back to check their catch within about 48 hours of setting the snares. Any longer, and the lions will move in instead. If he's right, it won't be much longer. 15 minutes later, Elliot signals contact. It's on. Busted. This is what Damien's training is all about - armed poachers taken down without a shot fired. The two arrests make a total of nine in just a month. They confess to killing seven animals on this hunt. A shotgun for their own protection and in case they come across a black rhino. All this in a private game reserve.
DAMIEN MANDER: This is a problem right across the country, right across the region, so...
LIAM BARTLETT: It's a real battle, isn't it?
DAMIEN MANDER: These guys will go to where they think the easiest kill is, you know. If they think this is the easiest kill, I hate to think what's going on the other areas.
LIAM BARTLETT: You've got 10 men in a relatively confined space. The national parks must be a nightmare.
DAMIEN MANDER: Yeah, screaming for help.
LIAM BARTLETT: Damien dreams his band of brothers will soon run into the thousands. With money he doesn't yet have, he has plans for five regional training academies - a green militia running down the Zambezi River, protecting the wildlife of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
LIAM BARTLETT: Well, what happens if none of this works?
DAMIEN MANDER: That's not an option, mate, yeah. Have you got a spare room at your joint?
LIAM BARTLETT: Home and family are never far from mind but, for Damien, this is a tour of duty unlike any other, and he's here until the war is won.
DAMIEN MANDER: You know, I'd love nothing more than to go home every Sunday and have a roast with the oldies or crack a cold one with the boys after work but, um, you know, this is where the job needs to be done and this is what we're doing, so you can't really put a value on those sort of sacrifices but I haven't got much in the bank, but I've never felt richer.